I’ll never forget when one of my special education students hurt his pet and word spread throughout the school. He came into my classroom prepared for me to write him off like everyone else had done. I gathered my strength and said, “I still believe in you.” I did not condone or excuse his behavior; I chose to believe he could turn things around. Fifteen years later, he wrote to me and said, “Thank you for believing in me. You were the only one, and it made a difference.”
Our children will make mistakes, just as we do. But with the words, “I still believe in you,” we can help them see that their mistakes are not the end.
Uncertainty and change can be difficult and stressful. Children (and adults too) often put pressure on themselves to resolve every situation, fill in every blank. It took me six out-of-state moves to finally experience the freedom that comes from acknowledging I don’t have to have it all figured out. By surrendering, my worry eased and the empty spaces were filled in better ways than I could have imagined. It has been such a gift to be able to tell my children to trust that things will work out in time, and they can let it go of the problem for now.
Think about what validation does for you. Someone at work notices you clean the coffee pot each day; it suddenly makes the job more enjoyable. This applies to our children too. Notice how they make the bed and arrange the stuffed animals in a certain way. Notice how your boy never fails to greet you with a smile. Notice the way she encouraged a teammate during the game. I call it “seeing the good,” and it is a powerful motivator, but it is something more. Highlighting a special talent or gift you see in someone might lead him or her to take a risk, go after a lifelong goal, or try an unexpected career path. I can still remember the day my second-grade teacher said, “Rachel, you are a writer.” Her words stuck with me for nearly 40 years and were instrumental in my decision to try writing as my career.
One evening as my child was getting ready for bed, troubling words came from her mouth that I never thought I’d hear. I felt like I could not breathe. I was greatly disappointed by her choice, but I recognized that she was telling me. She was telling me. Although I felt like screaming and crying, I knew that reaction would shut down the discussion and possibly all future conversations. I managed to say she did the right thing by telling me, and this opened the floodgates. Now don’t get me wrong: I let my child know I was disappointed and she would have to earn back my trust. But I did not shame or forsake her in her time of need. I did not kick her while she was down. There will be plenty of other people to do that in her lifetime.
Whenever your children present you with a shocking or disappointing choice, you have the power to teach them a lesson and ensure they never forget what they’ve done … OR you have the power to open the door — not only for that conversation, but also for future conversations. You have the power to be your children’s trusted source to turn to in their time of need.
I can still see my mom holding a limp dishrag in her hands and saying, “I want you to know that no matter what you do, your dad and I will always love you. No matter what happens, you can always come home.” My sixteen-year-old self nodded coolly like it was no big deal — but I knew it was a big deal. In the breath of two mere sentences, I became fully aware of just how much my parents loved me. My fear of making mistakes too huge to forgive, my worry of not measuring up, my apprehension to take risks or just be myself were put to rest. Standing on the unshakable foundation of unconditional love, I had an inner armor that could not be taken away. My parents kept their word to me throughout years of foolish mistakes and repeated disappointments. When I published my darkest truths for the whole world to read, I knew the first people to be standing there with open arms would be my parents.
Give your children the freedom to try, fail, and get back up to succeed by letting them know there is no mistake bigger than your love.
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Originally published at medium.com